The portentous, emotionally vacant film The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, plays like a parody of a Cormac McCarthy adaptation. Every gloomy and bloody outcome, most taking place along the border between the U.S. and Mexico and all having to do with a drug deal gone bad, is foretold. Every speech marks the cruel power of greed and condemns not just the weakness but the very smallness of mankind. It’s derivative nonsense. The baffling thing is, McCarthy did write The Counselor. It’s his first original screenplay. The Counselor is not faux McCarthy; it’s just bad McCarthy.
It begins with a couple in bed: with their heads covered by the sheets, they look like corpses in a morgue. They are Laura (Penélope Cruz) and the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) waking up after a long night of sex and preparing for more. Defying the laws of nature, Cruz plays Laura as a woman so shy and modest that she has difficulty asking for what she wants during sex. Among the Madonnas and whores that populate the film’s landscape, Laura is obviously the girl to marry.
The Counselor (we never learn his name) repairs immediately to the office of a diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz), who shows him a large yellow diamond and ruminates on its hidden meanings: “At our noblest, we announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.” Serious stuff. His word choice suggests that some brevity of life is in the works, but if I were the Counselor, I’d ask if the conversation could be limited to cut, color and cost. Instead, he
That’s only the beginning. McCarthy’s screenplay has the Counselor absorb an extraordinary amount of hokum. Not only is he poised to get married; he’s joining forces in a major drug deal with some of the criminals he’s been successfully representing for years. It’s the usual routine: one heist and I’m out. But everyone involved, including his clients turned partners Reiner (Javier Bardem, in his second McCarthy production after his Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men) and Westray (Brad Pitt), would like him to know that Mexican drug cartels don’t mess around. “They will rip out your liver and eat it in front of your dog,” Westray warns. That may be true, but when the Counselor eventually speaks with a kingpin named Jefe (Rubén Blades) there is nary a dog or a liver in sight, just a load of new-age drivel. “You are now at the crossing and you want to choose, but there is no choosing,” Jefe tells the Counselor. “You are the world you have created.” And also this: “Reflective men often find themselves at a certain remove from the realities of life.” Really, the only satisfying conversations the Counselor ever has are with Laura: “Ooh. God. Yes. Yes.”
The Counselor is such a passive sort, and Fassbender’s portrayal so fundamentally flat — he’s entirely miscast and has never been this blank or dull onscreen — that it is never clear what has compelled the character into this foolish business. Is he arrogant, stupid or insincere? Not that it much matters, since the movie’s main purpose seems to be throwing up signposts for what lies ahead. If someone explains a new mechanism of killing or torture, it is our dreary job as the audience to tick off the moments until that method is deployed. Usually it involves decapitation. This is a mystery without mysteries.
Not surprising, given that it is a Ridley Scott film. The Counselor looks as gorgeous as its cast, with plenty of raking light across Southwestern landscapes. But for a movie that’s meant to be contemporary — at one point Fassbender’s character stumbles into a street protest about all the disappeared young girls of Juárez — there’s an oddly retro vibe going on. Bardem could have been an extra from Less Than Zero, while Cameron Diaz, who plays Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (her name might as well be Malevolent), slinks around in clothes and makeup out of a late-1980s Vogue shoot, blathering about greed like Gordon Gekko when she’s not demonstrating her rapacious sexual appetites. Malkina would be the whore to counter Cruz’s Madonna, and Diaz plays her to the sneering, predictable hilt.
Bathed in the kind of misogyny that seems like a tedious relic of the generation in which Scott, now 75, and McCarthy, 80, grew up, it’s not a very intriguing role. I hope I’m not being hopeful in calling it a relic. I also hope, for the sake of Diaz’s dignity, that she at least raised the question as she was filmed lewdly straddling a sports-car windshield whether any woman not on a porn payroll would seek or achieve pleasure in this way.
At least the cheetahs hold on to their dignity. Reiner and Malkina keep a pair of them as pets, presumably a signal of the couple’s self-indulgence and disregard for the natural order of things. The big cats spend the movie popping up in odd places (swimming pools, piano benches), providing visual jokes in a generally humorless film. In lieu of any humans to care about, I found myself fixating on the animals’ health and well-being. If the ominously described bolito — sort of a hands-free head-removing device, which, don’t worry, you’ll see in action — had been employed on a cheetah, I’d have been upset. Instead I took my cue from the cheetah that walks by a fresh and bloody corpse, takes a cursory sniff and lifts its baleful eyes to look ahead. He or she is at a crossing and wait, there is choosing. Namely moving on and leaving all the dumb, pretty men of The Counselor behind.